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Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom

Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom

Mary P. Nichols
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 208
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    Thucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom
    Book Description:

    InThucydides and the Pursuit of Freedom, Mary P. Nichols argues for the centrality of the idea of freedom in Thucydides' thought. Through her close reading of hisHistory of the Peloponnesian War, she explores the manifestations of this theme. Cities and individuals in Thucydides' history take freedom as their goal, whether they claim to possess it and want to maintain it or whether they desire to attain it for themselves or others. Freedom is the goal of both antagonists in the Peloponnesian War, Sparta and Athens, although in different ways. One of the fullest expressions of freedom can be seen in the rhetoric of Thucydides' Pericles, especially in his famous funeral oration.

    More than simply documenting the struggle for freedom, however, Thucydides himself is taking freedom as his cause. On the one hand, he demonstrates that freedom makes possible human excellence, including courage, self-restraint, deliberation, and judgment, which support freedom in turn. On the other hand, the pursuit of freedom, in one's own regime and in the world at large, clashes with interests and material necessity, and indeed the very passions required for its support. Thucydides' work, which he himself considered a possession for all time, therefore speaks very much to our time, encouraging the defense of freedom while warning of the limits and dangers in doing so. The powerful must defend freedom, Thucydides teaches, but beware that the cost not become freedom itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5558-2
    Subjects: Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Thucydides as Historian
    (pp. 1-23)

    In this book I explore Thucydides’ commitment to the cause of freedom. Historians are not ordinarily thought of as embracing a cause. The historian, as Aristotle was one of the first to assert, describes what happens (Poetics1451b4–6). If a historian has a cause, it would be accuracy about the facts. Thucydides describes his own work in just such terms. Early in his account of the war between the Athenians and the Peloponnesians he criticizes how little effort others make in “searching for the truth” (1.20.3) and describes his own efforts to obtain clarity and precision for his work...

  5. Chapter 1 Periclean Athens and an Image of Freedom
    (pp. 24-50)

    Pericles has impressed many readers of Thucydides as the greatest statesman of his history. After all, Thucydides describes him as “the first man among the Athenians at the time, ablest in both speaking and acting” (1.139.4). Pericles’ preeminence in Athens is reflected in his preeminence in Thucydides’ history. For example, Thucydides has Pericles deliver the most famous speech of his history, the funeral oration for the Athenians who fell in battle during the first year of the war. Thucydides here gives Pericles the privilege of describing Athens—its regime and way of life—for which it will be remembered, and...

  6. Chapter 2 Athenian Freedom in the Balance: Mytilene and Plataea
    (pp. 51-77)

    Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor, long chafed under Athenian rule. With Athens weakened from the plague and the ongoing war, the Mytileneans revolt. Although Athens allowed Mytilene greater scope than its subjected allies—in fact, the revolting Mytileneans admit that they are “in name autonomous and free” (3.10.5, 3.36.2, 3.39.2)¹—Mytilene seeks greater freedom from Athens and rule over the island of Lesbos (3.2.3). Although the Spartans promise aid, the city falls to Athens before help arrives. Sending the Mytileneans whom he holds most responsible for the revolt to Athens as...

  7. Chapter 3 Sparta, Brasidas, and the Liberation of Hellas
    (pp. 78-106)

    In the previous chapter, I argued that Thucydides illustrates in his portrayal of Diodotus a politics cognizant of both the advantageous and the just, ennobled by the generosity or liberality that Pericles presented as a defining feature of Athens’s excellence. Thucydides highlights this potential of politics by his implicit contrast between Athens and Sparta in the episodes involving Mytilene and Plataea. I also pointed out the ambiguities in Athens’s treatment of Mytilene and Plataea. The politics of Pericles does not last—and perhaps cannot last—and in light of Athens’s later excesses in Sicily, a case can be made for...

  8. Chapter 4 Sicily, Alcibiades, and the Liberation of Erōs
    (pp. 107-137)

    During the sixteenth year of the war, Athenians invade the island of Melos. Before attacking the city, the Athenians attempt to persuade the Melians to surrender. Many readers understand the Athenian position in their dialogue with the Melians to be Thucydides’ most developed statement of his own realist position on power politics. Rejecting any appeal to justice or nobility, the Athenians warn the Melians, in Crawley’s memorable translation, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (5.89).¹ When the Melians resist, the Athenians subdue and destroy the city. The Melians suffer what they must, it...

  9. Chapter 5 Homecoming and Freedom
    (pp. 138-168)

    The issue of homecoming arises in the last books of Thucydides’ history as a consequence of the Sicilian expedition. Will those who go so far away be able to return home? Homecoming and its problems have emerged previously. As we have seen, the Spartans on Sphacteria become alienated from their city not merely by surrendering to the Athenians, but also by questioning what they should do, for Spartan laws and customs hold surrendering to be shameful. As a result, they lose the trust of their city, and cannot resume their place in the regime once they return home. The Spartans...

  10. Conclusion: Thucydides, an Athenian
    (pp. 169-184)

    Why Thucydides calls himself an Athenian at the outset of his history is as perplexing as his view of his role as a historian. We have seen arguments that Thucydides writes as a realist, a scientist, a postmodern, a constructivist, or a philosophic historian. The question of his approach to history is related to that of his identity as an Athenian. A constructivist, for example, might recognize that he, along with the actors in his history, is formed by the institutions and conventions of his world, and identify himself with his city at the beginning of his work. From this...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 185-190)
  12. Index
    (pp. 191-196)